Kaseem Ryan, better known as The Brownsville Ka, peruses the bins at A-1, a small, unassuming New York record store. Hailing from Brooklyn, the 39-year-old has been a fiercely independent artist for the 20+ years he’s been rhyming, believing “if you can make money from art, that’s a beautiful thing.”
In February, with distribution help from Fat Beat Records, Ka independently released Grief Pedigree, which culls his lifetime of experiences, years of crate-digging for samples and lyrics that employ his self-taught literary tricks. Grief Pedigree is a masterpiece, and Ka isn’t signed to a major label. How do artists like Ka — those who don’t have the resources of a multinational entertainment conglomerate behind them — achieve success?
The independents and majors have been going head-to-head before a U.S. Senate committee regarding EMI’s — the smallest of the major labels — dispersal and Universal Music Group’s bid to acquire their prior competitor. European regulators initially blocked the absorption, and on August 2, UMG filed remedies to their offer. The move would tip the balance of market share steeply in UMG’s favor and, as Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) wrote in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, “present significant competition issues.”
Nonetheless, independent labels are developing business models that will help them weather the storm. Says Simon Dyson of Music & Copyright, Universal buying EMI is “a certain guarantee that their market share isn’t going up to the detriment of independents.”
Indie labels, meanwhile, have seen a 2% rise in their physical and digital-revenue market share from 2010 due in large part to the astronomical success of UK artist Adele’s album 21, released in February 2011. She swept the 2012 Grammy categories in which she was nominated, going six-for-six, broke David Bowie’s record for career weeks spent at no. 1 in the English charts, and became the first artist to go double platinum — 2 million downloads sold — solely on iTunes. She achieved it all under the indie label XL Recordings, with some help from Sony, who distributed 21 in the U.S. for XL.
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